NASHUA, N.H. — A group of 19 potential GOP presidential candidates gathered here this past weekend, proving that almost anybody can be called a potential presidential candidate.
Nineteen! How did we get to 19 already? Is it really that easy to get a spot onstage in front of national news outlets, undecided voters and crucial primary-state power brokers to pitch your worth for the highest office in the land?
In the case of Dennis Michael Lynch, a documentary filmmaker and occasional Fox News guest, it took a $10,000 donation to the New Hampshire Republican Party.
“A lot of you are probably sitting here and thinking, ‘Wait a minute — did he just say president 2016? Who is this guy?’ ” said Lynch, a tough-guy New Yorker with a powerful quiff of black hair who got his speaking gig after shelling out to be a platinum sponsor for the First in the Nation Leadership Summit. “I get it. I’m not even a dark horse. I’m like a dark pony.”
Lynch might lack a donor base, name recognition or any campaign infrastructure — but he said he has thousands of letters urging him to run, sent by fans of his various films about immigration (he brought DVDs to hand out), and he promised to “wipe ISIS off the face of the earth.”
“Don’t ignore him,” said Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), who had come to the Crowne Plaza Hotel in the small state’s second-largest town because he is thinking about launching his own long-shot, but infinitely more plausible, bid for the White House. “I will, though, because I don’t know who he is.”
The joke was too good for him to stop. “We aren’t going to take him for granted,” Graham deadpanned. “We’re going to kill him early. Go negative on him.”
The fight for the top may have been raging among those with names like Bush, Rubio and Walker, but so, too, was the fight just to get some attention. That was the goal for a list of back-end candidates — has-been political forces including former governors George Pataki, Jim Gilmore and Bob Ehrlich; headline-friendly business moguls such as Donald Trump and Carly Fiorina; and such relative unknowns as former U.N. ambassador John Bolton — as they gave 30-minute speeches in a hotel ballroom.
“The truth is [that] running for president is defying every possible odd,” said Republican focus group guru Frank Luntz, who noted that Jimmy Carter was perhaps a third-tier candidate when he started his 1976 presidential campaign. “But there are some people who have lost touch with reality.”
There are also plenty of reasons to run for president beyond just winning. Sometimes it’s about trying to move the needle on a particular policy point. Sometimes it’s a bid to get back into the public eye. Sometimes it’s about book sales and TV gigs, and sometimes it’s just about ego. Or all of these things combined.
“I have the biggest crowds, I have the most responsive crowds, I get standing ovations,” Trump said at a breakfast at which The Washington Post was the only news outlet to attend. “And then people will report, ‘Donald Trump got a smattering of applause. . . .’ The press has to treat Trump fairly.”
Trump wanted the news media to report that he got a standing ovation at this particular speech. Indeed, he got it after calling America a “laughingstock” that is being “led by amateurs, and it’s a very sad thing.” He also went after another long-shot candidate’s record — because when you’re this low on the totem pole, everything counts as punching up.
“We have a woman running who got fired from a company; now she’s running for president,” he said, in obvious reference to Fiorina, the former Hewlett-Packard chief executive and California Senate candidate. “She got fired from a company in a vicious manner. They eventually walked her out. And she also lost an election, not by a little bit, by a landslide. I won’t use names. Now I turn on the television, and she’s running for president. I don’t know.”
When reached for comment about Trump’s remarks, a Fiorina spokeswoman groaned, “Oh my God, this makes my head hurt. Why?”
But if Trump can’t get any respect, there are plenty of “serious” candidates who are just looking for a way to get into the pipeline. Bolton, the former George W. Bush appointee, spent a lot of his weekend responding to questions about his mustache. During a live interview with the IJReview, Bolton was asked whether he would shave off his mustache if it would kill a nuclear deal with Iran. He said no.
When asked by The Post what it was like to have had such a long career and still mostly be known for having a mustache, Bolton seemed untroubled.
“I think it helps with the vital political issue of recognition,” he said. “We’ll see what happens going forward.”
After the interview, he walked into the press room. It was mostly empty other than a few reporters on deadline. Bolton stood in the back for a moment. When no one looked up from their computers, he walked away.
Graham, though, doesn’t think he needs facial hair to get recognized. Even though recent polls found that 55 percent of constituents in his home state of South Carolina wouldn’t vote for him for president, he thinks he can win support on the strength of his hawkish message and his ability to connect on a retail level. He has a powerful life story of growing up in the back room of a liquor store and raising his little sister after his parents died. He is charming and funny on the stump and can serve as an anti-Rand Paul on issues of national security.
So how exactly does he break away from the seemingly endless number of other candidates to become president?
“Message, means and momentum,” he said, without explaining exactly where the means and momentum will come from.
Anything can happen in a presidential race. Strong candidates can turn out to be weak ones, scandals can hit, unknowns can catch fire. But if it seems as if there is no downside to running for president, you’re not paying attention.
“This is the easy part,” Luntz said. “The hard part is if they start to gain traction. Then the ads start. Then their children find out what a bad father they’ve got. And friends find out how creepy you are. You end up millions of dollars in debt with people who were once your friends not liking you, with your family against you. It’s a really horrific process we put them through.”
It turns out there is a limit on who can show up at the First in the Nation Republican Leadership Conference and declare a candidacy. And Vermin Supreme, a Massachusetts man with a long white beard known for wearing a giant rubber boot on his head, was that limit.
“They’re loving me, obviously,” Supreme said. He expects he’ll do a lot better than the last time he ran in the New Hampshire Republican primary, when he got 43 votes. “They’re taking my stickers, they’re taking the free candy that I’m giving them. And nobody’s kicked me out yet, so that’s a big plus.”
He turned to Graham, who happened to be walking past.
“What do you think of my ‘free ponies for each American’ platform?” he asked.
“I’ll have to get back to you on that,” Graham said.
He wouldn’t get the chance. Moments later, security escorted Supreme off the premises. And like that, the conference lost its opportunity for a 20th candidate.